DCSIMG

Cohesion can lead Scotland to honour 1984 heroes

Scotland's Peter Dods converts a second try during the Scotland v France Five Nations rugby match at Murrayfield in March 1984

Scotland's Peter Dods converts a second try during the Scotland v France Five Nations rugby match at Murrayfield in March 1984

A HANDFUL of the legendary 1984 Grand Slam squad met current coach Scott Johnson and players at Murrayfield yesterday and delivered a clear message that Scotland should believe themselves capable of beating France this evening.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, Jim Aitken led his unfancied side into battle with a high-flying French team and came out on the right side of the result, to claim what was then only Scotland’s second Grand Slam.

It was not the first move by the SRU to build bridges to the past damaged by rugby’s charge to professionalism – as recently as the aftermath of the Calcutta Cup, players including Finlay Calder came in to chat to players about their experiences and help them bounce back from a defeat that, for some of the more hyperbolic critics, had brought the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding into Murrayfield.

We are talking of different players and teams in different eras with a different goal, something not lost on players searching for a team-mate born before 1984. But Johnson, who is coaching the team at Murrayfield for the last time, likes the players to know that there are others who have trodden the same path, and that sometimes it can lead to a successful outcome.

“It was nice having people around who have walked the walk,” he said. “We look for models and inspiration in all forms of people and when you chat to them they have stories to tell and if you can’t get a kick out of that there is something wrong with you.

“These people have done great things and it is a privilege to sit down and have a chat with them in a setting such as we are in. It is pretty special. It is a good, buoyant thing because there has got to be great respect for what those players have done, and my feeling is that we can’t celebrate their achievement often enough or highly enough.

“It is nice too that they
acknowledge that it was not always great times, because that is the human side of that and it also makes the achievement greater – they weathered the storm, they came through it and they probably contributed in rugby in so many different facets because of the humbling experience of not having success and then enjoying the success. That is a good story to tell, but it is the past and the focus for these guys [today’s squad to face France] is very much on the present and the future, and the opportunity they have now.”

Some continue to preface French encounters with talk of how Scotland will face up to “huge men”, with battles set in a “David v Goliath” context, but while Johnson pitched in with his unique take yesterday, predicting a French approach akin to “blunt-force trauma”, he also urged Scots to stop under-playing the size and strength of what is now as big a home pack as any in the world.

That is where this penultimate Six Nations Test match, and a key one in determining whether Scotland have gone forwards or backwards this year, will hinge. Scotland need to defuse a potent French threat and reveal an attacking force of their own, one that will yield tries against a quick and aggressive visiting defence, and a back line that likes bulldozer Mathieu Bastareaud to do much of the heavy work – the Toulon centre scored his two Test tries in 21 matches on his only previous visit to Murrayfield – and sits, cunningly waiting for a wayward kick from which to launch a counter-attack

Johnson spoke of using the insight of Scotland’s France-based forwards Johnnie Beattie, Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton, and suggested that they had contributed ideas to the game-plan and the bid to expose French weakness.

But the coach knows what we all know – that the winning and losing of this game comes down to simple areas to talk about, but far more challenging areas to actually control. He said: “We have to work off the back of a good set-piece again. If we get quality ball from the set-piece then we’ll be in the game. France and Italy are similar in many ways in that their strength is the set-piece, but France have a formidable back three that can tear you apart and formidable centres, so they have good strike players.

“We need to make sure we get parity there and control our own ball. That’s probably no different to any other game, but more so [against] the French because we have to make sure we’re in the contest and in the contest on our terms.

“We’re up against a more experienced team and lineout [than they encountered during the win over Italy in Rome], but we have a pretty good team ourselves. It’s up to us to get the basics right. We do that and we’ll be in this game.”

He expected a plethora of mauls, and admitted he remained puzzled by refereeing inconsistency around stopping mauls legally and illegally, but acknowledged that his side would have to compete. It is fairly simple to outline – Scotland have to compete across the pitch with the same aggressive, defiant spirit and building of momentum that they uncovered in the second half against Italy.

Do that as a team and Scotland have a real chance of claiming a first win over the French in eight years, because this French side is not a “team”. Seven players are making their first start in this championship and, while all talented performers, any player will tell you it takes time to pick up the pace and knit into team patterns in the pulsating, crash-bang-wallop environment of Six Nations rugby. Philippe Saint-André blamed the fact that they came together just days before the opening game last season as a key reason for them starting poorly and finishing last. He had an extra week this time and started with victories over England and Italy, yet has today just eight players in the same jersey that started the 26-24 win against the English, largely through injury. That could be significant.

If there is one thing Scotland have been reminded of in this tournament it is the importance of teams within teams, of the front five working together in the scrum and lineout, of the back row playing closely to each other and the half-backs being on the same page when it comes to kicking, running and passing.

The first half in Ireland and second in Italy revealed how competitive and tough to break down Scotland can be when they work as a close-knit team, and Alex Dunbar’s tries came from numerous players singing from the same hymnsheet.

France are the one side that can succeed while playing as a disparate bunch of individuals, so long as their pack fires, but the key for Scotland is to reveal their team strength and attack the new links between players and the fragility of the mind after a heavy defeat by Wales every bit as demoralising as Scotland’s to England.

Johnson stressed the “team” point yesterday when asked if he felt in any way emotional about this being his last game at 
Murrayfield as head coach, before Vern Cotter takes over in the summer.

“If we win it’s the boys that have won. It’s not about me and I don’t get caught up with that. Yes, it would be great to come back over here with my grandson in 20 years if I’m still alive then and tell him about some really great times I had here, but I’ve never said this is about me. It’s about this country and trying to get the rugby right,” he said.

There could be no better message for the players to hold tight as they run out into a packed Murrayfield this evening than the one that talks about there being no “i” in team. That holds the key now, just as it did 30 years ago, to a victory over France.

TEAMS

RBS Six Nations

At Murrayfield, today, kick-off 5pm

Live on BBC 1

SCOTLAND

15 Stuart Hogg

14 Tommy Seymour

13 Alex Dunbar

12 Matt Scott

11 Sean Lamont

10 Duncan Weir

9 Greig Laidlaw

1 Ryan Grant

2 Scott Lawson

3 Geoff Cross

4 Richie Gray

5 Jim Hamilton

6 Johnnie Beattie

7 Kelly Brown (capt)

8 David Denton

Subs

16 Ross Ford

17 Moray Low

18 Euan Murray

19 Tim Swinson

20 Ryan Wilson

21 Chris Cusiter

22 Duncan Taylor

23 Max Evans

FRANCE

15 Brice Dulin

14 Yoann Huget

13 Mathieu Bastareaud

12 Maxime Mermoz

11 Maxime Medard

10 Jules Plisson

9 Maxime Machenaud

1 Thomas Domingo

2 Brice Mach

3 Nicolas Mas

4 Pascal Pape (capt)

5 Yoann Maestri

6 Sebastien Vahaamahina

7 Alexandre Lapandry

8 Damien Chouly

Subs

16 Guilhem Guirado

17 Vincent Debaty

18 Rabah Slimani

19 Alexandre Flanquart

20 Antoine Claassen

21 Jean-Marc Doussain

22 Remi Tales

23 Gael Fickou

 

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